I bought my first Xbox 360 at launch after more than 15 hours of sitting in front of the Best Buy at the Madonna Plaza in San Luis Obispo. I spent the cold early morning hours acquainting myself with the people around me, talking about Star Wars. My first 360 lasted a little more than a year before it started to freeze, leaving a checkerboard pattern on the screen. Three red lights around the power button flashed repeatedly.
The red ring of death.
Microsoft replaced it for free and even paid for shipping to and from the repair center. My replacement console has worked the past three years with only one hitch --- a stubborn DVD drive that played peekaboo with me. I took my console around the world to South Korea, back, then back there, then back again. It survived numerous drops, being plugged into a 220v socket, and some intense gaming sessions.
Last week, after a few intense days of Final Fantasy XIII, my screen flashed purple, then blacked out. I plugged the console into another television. Audio came through, but still no picture. I looked online for a fix. According to one website, it was a problem with the graphics processing unit.
I called Microsoft. A representative told me that it would cost about $120 to order a repair. Processing a repair order online, he said, would cost $99.
I went back to the Internet. Since I had no warranty and couldn't afford a whole new replacement, I decided to repair it myself. For three days, I traveled all over Salinas, looking for parts and tools. I bought screws, washers, drivers, and even some thermal compound. A cashier at Ace asked me if I was fixing an Xbox 360.
"How did you know?" I asked.
"A lot of people have come in looking for those same parts," he said.
I followed a tutorial at Instructables.com along with a video tutorial from the guys at Xbox360Fix. I took the console apart, piece by piece. First, the outer shell. Inside, a metal case held the guts and brains of the machine. I wrestled with the fan shroud, pulled out the cables connecting the DVD drive to the motherboard, and swabbed the processors with alcohol. I drilled eight holes into the metal shell, stuck screws through it, and bolted the heatsinks down.
Friday evening, March 19, I plugged my console into a friend's television and watched him play for 30 minutes. It was a bittersweet moment. Seeing that opening screen and hearing that familiar whoosh sound, I thanked God.
How could a guy like me with two hands full of thumbs fix a next-generation console conceived by brilliant engineers? I went through a range of emotions -- from relieved to unsettled.
According to many sites on the Internet, the RROD is caused by several inherent flaws in the console's original design. Microsoft, not wanting to solder their processors to the board with lead, used a material more prone to breaking during stress. Heat, building up within the console, causes the motherboard to warp bending it away from the processing units which are held to the board by weak X-clamps. Combining heat, weak support, and soldering material apt to fail created the 54% failure rate that IGN reported.
By clamping the heatsinks down onto the motherboard with screws fettered to the case, the processing units stay under the heat sink and securely to the board. Other fixes require 20 minutes of overheating the system, a fix that tries to basically solder the GPU back onto the motherboard. The towel trick is one of those methods though many reports say it's a temporary fix that might actually and eventually cause a permanent breakdown of the system.
It's a shame that Microsoft built a defective product. It's also unfortunate that the company didn't order a recall to ensure that everyone owned a console that would last. I've never had a console fail on me until now, and both failures involved the same next-generation console. Was it a kind gesture for Microsoft to lengthen warranties to three years? Imagine if Toyota treated their customers the same -- we'll insure your cars from accelerator failure for a few more years, but after that, it's your problem.
There are also restrictions. If your Xbox 360 dies tomorrow, its replacement will take on the warranty of the console it replaced. "Is that right?" I asked the representative taking my call. If your Xbox 360 has one month to go on its three-year warranty, your new console gets one month before it's unprotected.
It helps to know if your Xbox 360 is one of the first generation consoles that could fail. Buyers can protect themselves by checking the power wattage and the power supply connector of a new or used console. The newer the model, the safer the purchase.
When I checked my replacement console, I was disappointed to see that Microsoft shipped me a first-generation 360 -- the likeliest to receive a RROD. They didn't fix my problem, they gave me another one. This isn't a call to all videogamers to abandon their Xboxes, but another statement reaching out to the company. The 360 is a great system with tons of games. Microsoft needs to show that they're focused on gamers playing, not paying. A friend of mine said he wanted to buy a 360 so he could play Mass Effect 2. To him, it's a matter of sticking price -- how much is an Xbox 360 really worth?